From second grade to “Sainted in Error” — this writer’s journey

I remember the moment when I first realized I could read.  The book was a simple one with a picture of a toy for every letter of the alphabet and its name written below. I felt a quickening, an opening of doors even though I couldn’t have articulated such feelings at five or six years old. Since then I have read and reviewed literally thousands of books, and if you were to ask me my favorite, “Great Expectations” would be the title that would spring to mind. But it’s the book of toys that I carry in my heart and my memory — one little text that opened the door to what I consider one of the greatest joys of being alive — reading.

Not long after the passion for reading was unleashed came the desire to write stories of my own. I first did this in second grade with the help of a classmate who longed to draw as much as I did to write. Our story was admittedly a rip-off of the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books our teacher was reading to us at the time, but writing it lit a flame in me that has never dimmed.

I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a writing opportunity since. I was the class reporter who wrote for the school paper and that annoying classmate who reminded the English teacher one minute before the bell rang that she had forgotten to give us an essay assignment. After a college professor read my first Composition 101 paper he transferred me to an advanced upper-division writing class.

I also remember the rainy day in Los Angeles when I decided to be a “real” writer. I bought a black turtleneck sweater and a ream of typing paper and set off on my mission. The first piece for which I received actual money was about a nun who left the convent to marry. It was published in a pulpy romance magazine to which I had submitted under a pseudonym. It turns out I needn’t have bothered because they didn’t print bylines. Apparently nobody else wanted to admit to having their stories in such a publication, either.

My day job was teaching first high school English and then college composition and literature classes until getting a second master’s degree in journalism and changing careers. Since then I have published more stories in newspapers and magazines than I can count, but I’ve never lost the thrill of seeing my byline, of meeting interesting people and telling their stories and telling several of my own during the 10 years I wrote the syndicated column “Letters From Home.”

When my children were small and I was still using a typewriter, often into the late hours, my son once toddled out of his room in tears. I had stopped writing early that evening, and not hearing the familiar clacking sound he was afraid I might be dead.

And so it went — non-fiction, short stories, poetry, literary magazines, newsletters, press releases, blog posts, all of it leading to a new desire — to write a novel. In order to tackle such a project a writer must “save string” — a house here, an alleyway there, a red dress with white polka dots, a blue car with a dented fender. We listen to conversations and take in life around us, and one thing I started to notice was how much undiagnosed or untreated mental illness exists today.

I see it in my own circle of acquaintances, and I read about it in the headlines. It seems that every day another person who should have gotten help but didn’t has used a gun to kill a spouse, a neighbor or children who were innocently sitting in their seats at school. I see people destroying their own lives as they devastate others for reasons that could have been mitigated but were not.

I had ideas for other stories when I sat down to write, but “Sainted in Error” edged all of them out and begged to be told. My goal in writing it, of course, was to engage readers in a story they don’t want to put down. But if along the way someone recognizes themselves in Cynthia and reaches out for help, I will consider my work worthwhile.

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